Merck's COVID-19 pill: Will it be a gamechanger for the coronavirus pandemic?

Drugmaker Merck has officially asked the FDA to authorize its pill for COVID-19, saying it can reduce the risk of hospitalization. But, just how much of a gamechanger could it really be?

READ MORE: Merck seeks FDA authorization of antiviral COVID-19 pill

"If this pill is something that gets approved and becomes available, it will be something very similar to what we do for influenza," says Dr. Amesh Adalja of Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "For example, you get diagnosed with influenza, you get a prescription for Tamiflu."

The company reported earlier this month that the pill cut hospitalizations and deaths by half among patients with early symptoms of COVID-19. The results were so strong that independent medical experts monitoring the trial recommended stopping it early.

An antiviral pill that people could take at home to reduce their symptoms and speed recovery could prove groundbreaking, easing the crushing caseload on U.S. hospitals and helping to curb outbreaks in poorer countries with weak health care systems.

READ MORE: CDC director says COVID-19 pandemic’s end ‘depends on human behavior’

Dr. Adalja tells FOX 5 the virus won't disappear, but if fewer people have to go to the hospital because of it, that's a big deal.

"If you can make COVID-19 into an outpatient illness from being an inpatient illness where people are hospitalized, especially those at a high risk to a high degree, then you’ve made a really great stride in controlling COVID-19," he says.

However, Dr. Adalja made clear the pill would not replace the COVID-19 vaccine, adding that prevention is always better than treatment.

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"The vaccine still needs to be the priority, but this is evidence of the fact that we are advancing in our understanding of this virus, in our treatments of this virus, and eventually this will be something that we learn to deal with and cope with in a much better way than we have in the past because we will have so many more tools at our disposal," Dr. Adalja says.

U.S. officials continue to push vaccinations as the best way to protect against COVID-19. But with some 68 million eligible Americans still unwilling to get the shots, effective drugs will be critical to controlling future waves of infection.


He says the pill could be approved in a matter of weeks.